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Monday, 14 October 2013

Varying quality: when dark and stormy nights are enlightening

Many interesting things have been written about the benefits of bad literature (check out this, for example) and I'm not about to write an essay about it myself, but today I had the chance to see a live example of how it can be good for children to be exposed to literature of varying quality. Exposing children to a few bad books among the wonderful books one buys or one tends to pay attention to in libraries can help them develop their judgement.

When I say bad literature I refer to literature whose author objectively and evidently  ignores the basic principles of story building, character development and narration. I mean literature whose author has said: 'Writing for children? That's easy. I can do that'. There is much, much, much more of this kind of literature than of the good stuff of course. But what I wanted to say today was that some of it might be beneficial (every now and then).

At home we are very lucky, because we read books that are very good, a lot of fun, very entertaining and well constructed. But recently we have another source of books apart from the family: the school library. I have to say it is a school library badly in need of new acquisitions, the last great purchase seemingly dating back to the late seventies or early eighties (fortunately, this was one of the golden ages of children's publishing in Spain, so we can't complain, I suppose).

This weekend we brought home the first school library book of this school year. I don't normally write negative reviews. Life's too short and I don't really believe in reviling other people's work. But I don't know if we can call this a negative review exactly, given the positive consequence of reading the book.

The book -I'll forget the title- is about a boy who'd rather be in the clouds than play with his friends. He closes his eyes and travels away to the clouds and has fun imagining, dreaming and building imaginary castles. One day another boy appears in the clouds and they become friends. But then the sun starts shining stronger and stronger and the clouds go gradually disappearing. The two children start fighting because there is not enough room for them both and the main character slips down to his room. Time goes by and the boy no longer wants to close his eyes and go up to the clouds. He prefers going to the beach and building sand castles. One day on the beach a boy goes up to him and asks him if he'd like to play. The main character turns and sees it is his friend from the clouds. From that day on they always play together on the beach and they prefer it to the clouds because there are also other children they can play with there.

My son is normally positively predisposed towards any book (unless something extraliterary on the front cover switches his interest off automatically). This case was no exception. 'Can you read it to me?' he asked. 'Of course', I said. We read it once. 'Do you like it?' I asked. 'Yes', he said. He told me he liked the illustrations (there were lots of animals in them, made out of clouds), and he thought it amusing that the boy closed his eyes and let his imagination soar.

This morning before going to school, he asked to read it one more time. But this time his reaction was very different. When we finished it, he said: "Mummy, this is a very strange book". I asked him why. "Because the boys don't say anything. They don't think anything either. I don't know what they are like". 'Do you mean their personality?' I asked. "Yes, he said, I don't know anything about their personality. The writer just tells us some things that happen."

He asked to read it once more. This time he asked why several times. "Why do the boys start fighting?". I tried to answer him, but the truth is his question was a very good one. I didn't understand why the boys started fighting either. Even so, I tried to answer him according to the logic of the book's author. "Well, the book says it is because they don't have as much room, because the clouds are disappearing". But my son looked at me and said: "that's not a very good reason. I don't know what they are thinking, so I don't understand why they fight".

And it was time to go to school, so we had to stop the conversation. But it struck me that a four-year old boy had just managed to point out very accurately what was wrong with the book: No real characters and false causality resorted to in order to advance a narration heading straight to a forced metaphor.

Of course he could not have detected it without the baggage of all those good books we read every day, but it suddenly struck me that it was important and interesting to read so-so things and bad things too. I thought it was important to expose children to varying quality precisely because it helps them tell one from the other.

The recipe seems easy then: read, read, read and then read a bit more. Read a lot of good stuff and some rubbish too. And think about it every now and then.

If it works for a four-year old, it should work for preschool and primary teachers, and people thinking of writing children's literature too.

We can't go around recommending children's literature without having read a lot of it. We can't begin to think of writing children's literature without having read a lot of it. A lot of the really good stuff, and bit of the bad stuff for good measure.

(c) of the text: Ellen Duthie. By all means copy it or reproduce it but please be kind and cite your source (author and blog).


  1. Great post - and timely, given Gaiman's comments earlier this week that in a sense there are no bad books.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Zoe. I think there are plenty of "bad" books out there; precisely those Gaiman describes as "the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian "improving" literature" and urges adults to avoid pressing upon their poor children. Even those though, some kids will get something out of (even though perhaps not what the author or adult choosing the book intended).